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Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 18, 2011

Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark contains about 15 unforgettable, spectacular, thrilling minutes of stunning theatricality the likes of which you have almost certainly never experienced before. Most of these minutes come right at the end of the show, and as a result it's easy to leave Spider-Man feeling satisfied and happy, which is exactly how I felt when I left. Do these 15 minutes make up for often inexplicable creative choices that hamper the rest of the show? My verdict—and that of my companion—is yes; we agreed that though there are lots of slow spots, Spider-Man is never boring, and the qualities that are best about it—its imaginativeness, its artfulness, and its delivery of special effects you wouldn't expect to find in a Broadway theatre and couldn't find in a movie house—make it well worth the time spent.

Let me start by giving you the briefest of ideas about those grand 15 minutes; brief, because I do not want to spoil the fun if you decide to see the show yourself. They're all about flying: action sequences in midair that engage that universal human impulse to be airborne in the most exciting and visceral way imaginable. They're also about shifting perspectives and masterful stage illusions that are immersive and delightful; for these 15 minutes you feel like a little kid again, and that's a really nice thing. Credit a squadron of talented people whose names have mostly not much figured in the hoopla that has surrounded this show since it began previews: aerial rigging designer Jaque Paquin, aerial designer Scott Rogers, automated flying programmer Jason Shupe, and the ensemble aerialists, especially Christopher W. Tierney, Craig Henningsen, and Collin Baja, whose performances above the stage and audience are, in a word, awesome.

Beyond the stuff that happens in midair, there is plenty that is noteworthy in Spider-Man. The sets, lighting, and projections (credited in the program, respectively, to George Tsypin, Donald Holder, and Kyle Cooper, with some three dozen more names listed in the back pages) are fluid and fun and often surprising; in a couple of cases, the scenic design is as lovely and memorable as a beautifully wrought painting. Puppetry (Louis Troisi), masks (Julie Taymor), hair (Campbell Young Associates/Luc Verschueren), and makeup (Judy Chin) are astonishing much of the time. The costumes, designed by Eiko Ishioka, are more tightly bound to the comic book images we're familiar with (e.g., Spider-Man's costume looks like Spider-Man's costume; nothing new there). But if you're wondering where the 75 million dollars is, well...it's all over that stage. Add the big cast and the explosive effects and sound, and you've got an extravaganza beyond the scale of anything I've ever seen in a Broadway house.

All of which perhaps makes it easier to forgive the parts of the show that don't work. The musical is based, of course, on the popular Marvel Comics character, and its first act tracks how teenage Peter Parker became Spider-Man, following a bite from a mutated spider; a subplot introduces Norman Osborne, the egomaniacal scientist who will be Spider-Man's nemesis as the Green Goblin. Act One is very exposition-heavy. The second act focuses on the confrontation between Green Goblin and Spider-Man (which begins after the former unleashes a sextet of mutant creatures on the streets of New York City, inciting some 9/11-like terror), as well as on the budding romance between Peter/Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson AND on Peter's own crisis of confidence/faith in assuming the mantle of crime fighter that he never sought. Just one focus would be sufficient; there's too much dead time in Act Two while we wait for the climax. But, as I've already said, the climax justifies the wait.

The book, by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, never achieves a cohesive tone. Much of it is rooted in a melodramatic style that will feel quaint or dated depending on your mood; the Green Goblin sequences, on the other hand, are arch and self-aware, with the villain breaking the fourth wall to joke with the audience and otherwise ingratiate himself (Patrick Page seems to be having a ball doing this, by the way). Once in a while, a third style pops up, and it's the one that's most successful—a jaunty, abstract, comic book-y approach to the material that's reflected in some of the most successful designs (exaggerated Dick Tracy-esque bad guys, bold-outlined set pieces and props): that carefree exuberance that superheroes can get away with.

The score, by U2's Bono and The Edge, is the weakest link in the production. Most of the songs feel generic (though, as my companion noted, it's easy to imagine Bono singing many of them); they tend to either not fit the plot situation at hand or, worse, to stop it in its tracks. Excision of two or three of the power ballads would probably be a good thing.

A note in my press packet from lead producers Michael Cohn & Jeremiah J. Harris acknowledged the efforts of what they term the hardest-working cast on Broadway. I'm in no position to rank them, but they absolutely do work hard: the large chorus of dancers, aerialists, ensemble members, and Spider-men (yes, there are about eight of them) deserve enormous kudos for their precision, energy, skill, and fearlessness. In addition to Page, the supporting players include T.V. Carpio in the weird, undercooked role of Arachne, Isabel Keating as Peter's Aunt May and others, Michael Mulheren as the newspaper publisher who is Peter's boss, and Ken Marks as Peter's Uncle Ben and others. They all acquit themselves like pros, but they're playing comic book characters, so don't expect much in the way of nuance or depth here. Jennifer Damiano is a more attractive Mary Jane than I expected, and Reeve Carney, if a bit wooden in Act One, is a credible Peter/Spider-Man...and hey, you couldn't get me to do some of the stuff he does (like emerge from the rafters upside-down or dance on the walls and ceilings of his room).

The barrage of criticism heaped upon Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark certainly lowered my expectations, and I'm not absolutely sure I'd want to pay top ticket price unless I was certain I was in seats where I'd experience the full impact of the show's effects. But the bottom line is that I had a pretty good time at Spider-Man, and I think just about everyone else in the theatre did too. If you go, I am very sure you will have an experience—at least for those 15 minutes—unlike any you've had before.